Molly Miller Jahn '80
My family and I are so delighted to be here to receive this honor with the Swarthmore College Class of 2015. This is a very special recognition for me. And it is a very special opportunity for us to join you, graduates, your families, and friends as we accept these credentials together, and embark together on what comes next.
Each of you graduates is now officially qualified with some skills, with new knowledge, and with the responsibilities you may choose to accept with this credential. We are gathered here in this time-honored ritual to celebrate your accomplishments and the community that has made these achievements possible.
But it is my hope also, that somewhere in this fantastic brew of people and experience that is a Swarthmore education, you have found an even more important qualification. I hope you have found a personal acquaintance with humility. This place has a way of introducing to even the most talented among us this virtue, humility. And that is true cause for celebration.
For I believe that humility is one of the great and lasting treasures of a good education.
As you’ve heard, I’m best known as a geneticist. Speaking of humility, that path started here at Swarthmore... with a 48 on my first genetics test. Not apparently an auspicious start. But it is a start I treasure more than all the A's that came later. From the very beginning, I had to ask for help. I had to keep asking for help. I had to learn how to ask questions. And keep asking questions. These are the most precious skills I learned as a student at Swarthmore College.
In preparing for this visit, I caught up with the passionate, inevitably bruising dialogue on this campus about divestment in fossil energy. Of course, I am not a bit surprised that Swarthmore is on the front edge of asking the hardest questions we face as a society. Our species' addiction to fossil energy now fuels so many fast-moving globalized interdependencies that we have truly entered a new chapter in human history. Some call this new era the Anthroposcene, signaling that we now understand our actions can change our physical world at the largest scales. And that our world has limits.
I do bring disturbing news from the frontier of science - we don't know what those limits are. Re-purposing 20th-century science, so much of which is focused on maximizing outputs and driving efficiencies, doesn't work very well when the question is how to manage the human-Earth system for the long term.
You, Class of 2015, are the first generation that has this context squarely in hand so you can see the crazy dissonance of the threats we now face as part of larger patterns. And you can pull into sharp focus the opportunities for innovation in every sphere of human endeavor.
Our connectedness creates a host of possibilities from radical compassion, and radical new understandings of self and other, to vulnerabilities on a scale we couldn't have imagined even 10 years ago. Those of you who have led the divestment conversation, and now the whole Swarthmore community, you are forcing the rest of the world to acknowledge, Houston, we've got a problem. And you have understood that capital, and the rules that govern how capital moves, must be a core element of any solution.
Many of the symptoms that cause most concern in the circles I run in, including the concerns that have prompted the divestment debate, are direct consequences of a view that says, "If we only have more of whatever is on my mind now - more food, water, energy, more tents and blankets, even more education, more women's rights... if we only had MORE we'll be fine." And that may be true...but it turns out these things are delivered in systems we don't see at all well, if only because we never decided to look carefully. This insight about limits is pretty obvious, but its implications are profound.
In the mid-19th century, when so much of how we work today was set into place, limits were not on our mind. The More, More, More paradigm has guided us to a world where we got more, all right - and how we got more is that we pump vast amounts of fossil carbon energy into the Earth-human system. In return we get a suite of actually very foreseeable "problems" that we now try to "solve," like the whack-a-mole game at a carnival. We whack at greenhouse gas emissions! Obesity! Groundwater depletion! Dead zones! We whack at instability in the oil-rich Middle East! Not understanding that each of these threats is a different facet of related dynamics - too much fossil energy pumped into the Earth-human system.
So the debate here on divestment has already been critically important. Under the lens of sustainability, we are learning to see our choices in a new light. We are learning to see connections across scales, setting new vocabularies, new values, thinking in new ways about our choices and their implications from local to global. We are asking new questions. We are thinking in new ways about rights, including the rights of those who have not yet been born. This is the most amazing moment to be graduating from college. When you take your places as the next generation on duty, you will want to know - what is the right thing to do? It is in that question, not in the answer of the moment that lies my hope for your generation, that you will be the ones that move us from "smart" to "wise."
Almost exactly a century ago, Max Weber warned us that the pursuit of disciplinary excellence would inevitably lead to a narrowing and deepening of knowledge, resulting in, among other things, the intellectual impoverishment of individual practitioners and the disenchantment of humankind. We would lose our way in fascinating details. We would lose the connections between art and science, between magic and technology, between information and narrative. We would be trapped in our disciplines like crayfish in a bucket. We would no longer see the obvious. Smitten with our cleverness, we would fail to ask the really important questions. But you, here, have stepped up to ask, what is the right thing to do?
History shows us that time and time again, human beings can make very expensive and difficult changes for good. We have tumbled through the cascade of civil rights, cigarettes, handicapped access, and gay marriage to name just a few issues that have moved radically in my lifetime.
And when it's time, history tells us the new paradigm usually comes in a sudden unstructured conversion type experience, led by very young people, or those who change fields. That would be you, and that would be me. So game on, graduates! And while there are many questions about what to do next, one thing science can tell us clearly is that doing a little less bad and a little more good is nowhere near enough!
What I hope you have each learned individually in your academic lives, and in community, is this. The point of any of these debates is NOT the answer of the moment, as important as that answer may be. Our current view is always incomplete. The point is to have the courage to join hands with those to your left and those to your right. My hope, my plea to you graduates, to all of us is to nurture the humility that will allow us to ask and keep asking the important questions of our time and your place, the important questions of our age. As Lin Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Laureate in economics told me before she died, there is always a fight. Science is not the fight, but science can elevate the quality of the fight. So when you ask the question, What is the right thing to do?, science can't provide the answer. That's not what science is for, really, although we scientists often get very confused about that. But good science can shed great light on the right questions to ask.
For those of you so inclined, a Swarthmore education can be a superb foundation from which to stare without flinching at these wicked problems - to embrace these problems as inter-related dynamics that may be tamed with courage and love, with honesty and humility about what we know now and what you have yet to see. A word about love. It was the love of some Swarthmore classmates that saved my life about 10 years after I graduated from this place. So love each other well. (Love your parents, your sisters and brothers and neighbors too!) Keep your demons' hands in plain sight. And for just one moment now, let's acknowledge the power and strength and love this web of humanity gathered here before we send the Swarthmore College Class of 2015 on your way to share what you've found here and see what next will come.